It's ten years since Simon and Jonathan founded Blue Sky Fostering. We decided it was a good time to catch up with them both to find out more about them; why they decided to set up their own agency, what exciting times Blue Sky Fostering has experienced so far and what their plans are for the future. Here's what they had to say:
What is your career background?
Simon: "It may surprise some to hear that my early career was as a Buyer at Covent Garden Market in London. Early starts finally got to me and I left to take up a position as a House Parent at a school for children with autism. At the same time I volunteered at an advice centre for homeless young people and knew that working with children was the career I wanted to follow. I finally qualified as a Social Worker in 1991, having spent a number of years working in children’s homes and a safe house for young runaways. After qualifying, I had a stint as a Probation Officer working with young offenders, before taking up management positions with The Children’s Society and then NCH. It was at NCH that I was lucky enough to manage a service providing fostering placements for young people on remand and my interest in fostering grew from there. In 1997, I founded the southern region of a now national fostering provider and sat on the board of Directors developing independent fostering across the UK. I left in 2005 to start up Blue Sky."
Jonathan:"I trained as a Youth and Community Worker. My first job included working in a centre in Bristol that saw 400 young people a week and organising outdoor adventure weekends in Wales. I then moved to the USA working for the justice system in Florida. Here I worked with groups of teenage boys in a wilderness therapeutic setting. This was my first experience of working with children in the care system. On returning to the UK, I worked for The Children’s Society which is where Simon and I met in 1993. This project was a multi-agency advice and information service for young people. A cutting edge service in its day! We worked with homeless teenagers and children who had run away from care. I then took qualifications in learning and development and management with The Open University and joined Simon at a national fostering provider in Southampton. After leaving that fostering provider I worked as a freelance trainer and part-time Youth Officer with The Church of England before Blue Sky launched in 2005."
What prompted you to start up Blue Sky?
Simon: "Having been fortunate enough to be around in the early days of the development of independent fostering agencies I saw first-hand what a difference they could make not only to the lives of young people in care, but to the level of support for those caring for them. Good training, flexible support, being valued and a sense of all being 'in it together' were consistent themes from foster carers I worked with. It became difficult to maintain these values in a large national organisation. So in 2005 I set up Blue Sky with Jonathan with the aim of getting back to delivering a service with excellent customer service, where we would be ambitious for the children in our care, where we would all go the extra mile to support our highly valued foster carers and where we would never lose sight of what really matters."
Jonathan:"Simon and I met up again in 2005, both looking for a new career direction. We met in the refectory at Salisbury Cathedral. After discussion, Simon decided he wanted to create a new fostering agency that recruited the best staff and foster carers, provided outstanding care for children and offered Local Authorities a really competitively priced service. It would have a family feel, not corporate, have strong values and break new ground - 'blue sky thinking'; Hence the name Blue Sky."
How did you feel when the first foster carers were approved?
Simon: "It was an incredibly exciting and proud moment. It was even more poignant as the first carers we approved transferred over from my previous agency. I will always be grateful for the trust they put in us. Holding our first Panel and approving our first three sets of foster carers was the moment I knew that our vision of what a fostering agency should be was shared by others. Their faith in Blue Sky was truly moving."
Jonathan: "Pride and joy! It took us six months of work before we go our first carers. Within 12 months we had 20!"
How did you feel when the first young person was placed with Blue Sky?
Simon:"It was an incredible feeling! Months of hard work had been leading to this point. To be honest in the first few weeks the phone had not been ringing off the hook and although you believe in what you are providing you are always a little nervous! In some ways, I felt a little sorry for the first young person we placed and the foster carers we placed them with. We had so much time on our hands I think they got fed up seeing us every day! With over 210 children and young people in our care now I am sure that everyone will find this hard to believe, but I still wake up in the morning with that sickening feeling deep down that we may not always be successful. I feel incredibly passionate about Blue Sky and I never ever want to feel complacent about what we’ve achieved. We have so much more to do!"
Jonathan: "Excited and relieved! We felt it was a great match but we new our reputation was riding on a good placement. It wasn’t an easy placement for our carers or the children but we had a foot in the door and other referrals quickly followed once we had more carers. We were finally demonstrating that we could run a professional service."
Were you both 'hands on' with the business from the outset?
Simon: "Oh yes! In the early days we couldn't even afford a cleaner for the office. We would take turns to vacuum and empty the bins before we went home for the weekend. We used to make all the sandwiches for carers support groups ourselves to keep the costs down (I can hear carers who have been with us from the beginning saying 'that explains a lot!'). We did support visits, initial home visits to new carers and out of hours support. Jonathan delivered all the training in house. It was a great feeling when we employed our first Social Workers, Sarah Rockett and Rupert Bolger and they're still with us 10 years on!"
Jonathan: "Absolutely. From day one we did everything and covered every role. Yes, it even included cleaning the loo! Visits, on-call, skills to foster weekends, seeing in placements and running the placements desk, marketing, delivering leaflets. Over the next 2-3 years we were able to pass some responsibilities to new staff and employ a cleaner!"
How does your present day working life differ from those early days?
Simon: "Well to start with my daily commute has expanded somewhat. I used to travel 2 minutes from my house to the Ringwood office. Now you can find me visiting our teams and foster carer support groups anywhere from Kent across to Devon. Although more of my time is now spent steering the company rather than the service (the management team are much better at this than me anyway!), I still love attending training and support groups to hear about the brilliant work our foster carer colleagues are doing to turn around the lives of young people. Making a difference is still where my heart is and being able to make key decisions which impact positively on children lives gives me the greatest buzz!"
Jonathan: "In the early days I knew all the children and carers and knew just about everything that was happening in Blue Sky. Today that is not possible and I rely on having highly competent people to carry out the tasks. I feel proud at how Blue Sky has grown and the number of lives we have helped. I am also excited about the future as we become a more mature community."
What are the plans for the future at Blue Sky?
Simon: "Over the last twelve months we have been working hard to develop our Blue Sky Plus – Therapeutically Led Care service and this is a really exciting development! I have always firmly believed that there are very few young people who cannot benefit from being in a family environment, rather than residential care, with the right support and resources and with resilient carers willing to go the extra mile. Our TLC service, working with children recovering from trauma and young people at risk of migrating from residential care is having a major impact in enabling them to have a positive experience of family life and to stabilise their lives for the better. These are the very young people we had in mind when we started Blue Sky and I am excited about the prospect of rolling the service out across our regions."
Jonathan: "Change will be a constant theme! Local authorities budgets are tighter so we are being asked to do more for less by them. Nevertheless, we will not entertain providing a poorer service to children. We will continue to be true to our values and we will continue to recruit foster carers and staff who will be committed to those values."
You have have any final thoughts on how far Blue Sky has come?
Simon: "This year we celebrate 10 years! I really can’t believe it. We’ve ridden some tough economic times and the impact of some major changes in children’s services. We chose the name Blue Sky because it summed up our aspirations for the agency and the people we worked with. At the end of the day, for me, Blue Sky is the people involved with it. Committed and passionate people, going the extra mile to improve the lives of children. I just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone whatever role you have played in our success, you really are making a difference. I look forward to seeing everyone at our 10 year celebration events in the summer!"